New Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school is complete, but Indian education system is crumbling


The list of dignitaries on hand Monday to dedicate northern Minnesota’s new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School included U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. On his return to Washington, D.C., the Trump Cabinet member needs to send this critical message to his slow-moving agency: The work to rebuild crumbling Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools has just begun.

Every kid served by the federally run BIE system deserves the same safe, modern learning facility that Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig students now have. Classes will be held for the first time this fall in the new 44,000-square-foot building near Bena, Minn. The light-filled, $14.5 million school replaces a cramped, damp, cold and leaky old pole building spotlighted in a 2014 Star Tribune editorial series on deplorable BIE school conditions.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s celebration filled the new building with vibrant color and sound. The gym’s sturdy floor thumped solidly under the feet of dancers in jingle dresses and other traditional regalia. The facility’s technological capability allowed Minnesota’s two U.S. senators to send greetings via video display. At the old building, booting up computers at the same time strained the wiring and could cause power outages.

As speaker after speaker noted, Monday’s celebration was long overdue. School officials and the Leech Lake community began pushing for a new facility in the 1990s. Congress finally approved funding in spring 2016. The Leech Lake Band’s persistence is admirable, but it shouldn’t take decades to replace a school.

BIE schools, often located in remote communities, are a legacy of the U.S. government’s treaty commitments to Indian education. It is a disgrace that roughly 50 schools — about a third of total BIE schools — still are in need of replacement or serious overhaul. The K-12 system serves about 48,000 American Indian students across the nation.

As interior secretary, Zinke can make good on the commitment to Indian education that he professed during the Bug school ceremony. BIE and the Bureau of Indian Affairs fall under his agency’s jurisdictional umbrella. If he really wants to build new schools, he can shuffle resources, hire top talent, fire laggards and wield his clout to secure funding. Doing so would be a dramatic change from previous presidential administrations.

Zinke touted a new Indian education funding initiative during his speech. The legislation is commendable but has yet to make it through Congress. Even if passed, it’s unlikely on its own to provide enough funding to churn through the BIE school construction backlog. Tribal nations in need of replacement schools should not stop lobbying.

The Leech Lake Band can be a vital resource to these other communities by sharing what worked here. Leech Lake’s leaders and its students built an influential network of supporters that included most of Minnesota’s congressional delegation. The bipartisan push from U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican, built critical support in the House. Former U.S. Sen. Al Franken and current U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, doggedly worked the upper chamber.

The Leech Lake Band also energetically shared its story. The community welcomed journalists, including a Star Tribune editorial writer and photographer, and provided tours to “wave after wave” of federal officials as coverage spotlighted the school’s plight.

The sparkling, spacious new high school will help generations of students achieve their potential and serve as a vital community hub. Decades must not pass before kids at all BIE schools have the same chance to succeed. Zinke should welcome the opportunity not just to lead but to leave behind many more concrete examples of exemplary public service.

To see a gallery of photos of the new school by the Star Tribune’s David Joles, who also worked on the 2014 series with editorial writer Jill Burcum, go to http://strib.mn/2Kf0Sw1.

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